Power struggle made famine in Somalia even worse, can it be changed?

The food and daily necessity donated from international organizations has arrived in the land of Somalia, but no matter how much food available out there, it does not change the fate of Somalis who are at risk of death, due to prolonged starvation. The situation is like the money has been transfered to your bank account, but due to some covered-up reason, you are not allowed to withdraw some money – in the end – just helpless.

A Somali woman escaped the famine zone but unfortunately lost her children during the journey, she told Fault Lines. Credits: Al Jazeera Fault Lines

A Somali woman escaped the famine zone but unfortunately lost her children during the journey, she told Fault Lines. Credits: Al Jazeera Fault Lines

I have been following one of Al Jazeera‘s documentary series “Fault Lines”, journalist Josh Rushing investigated the root cause of the famine in Somalia in the previous episode. The famine crisis has hit the so-called “Internally-displaced persons” camps in the country’s capital Mogadishu, leading to almost 7.5 million people risking death, according to the United Nations. It has been reported that this is the worst drought in 60 years of time, resulting 4 million Somalis are facing starvation.

Josh Rushing questioned why famine could be happened in the 21st century, and he was looking for someone responsible for the humanitarian crisis. He made an attempt reaching to former UN officials, victims and analysts, bringing out a deeper insight of the famine situation – what’s behind famine?

 

Military dependence of weak Somali transitional government

Political and power landscape is far more complicated than we have thought. The struggle of power between different organizations and institutions is considered as the ultimate cause for the prolonged famine. The first real issue is the current Transitional Federal Government (TFG) does not hold genuine power over the country. Headed by President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the transitional government was established in 2004 in Kenya, aiming to form a legitimate central government in Somalia. In fact, Somalis have been trying to form its own strong government since the death of former President and Dictator Muhammad Said Barre. Though Barre killed plenty of innocence with cruelty, his biggest contribution was to unite all Somalis clans when he was in throne for almost 30 years of time.

Influence of extremist group

After the Barre’s regime, Somalia was undergoing a period of warlords, suffering from over 20 years of civil war. The political instability in Somalia led to the rise of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), leading to a transformation of sharia legal system, each court administers a region and also owns a large militia. One of the leaders, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, declared on global jihad, especially on its neighboring country Ethiopia. The organization has been sponsored by several Islamic countries, such as: Iran, Egypt, Djibouti, Libya, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Eritrea. The US Assistant Secretary of State once said, revealed by WikiLeaks about UIC’s underlying political goals:

The Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by al-Qaeda cell individuals, East Africa al-Qaeda cell individuals. The top layer of the court are extremists. They are terrorists. They are killing nuns, they have killed children and they are calling for a jihad.

Al Shabaab the dictating power

It was believed that the country’s weak state government in the 1990s has given rise to the growing activity of Islamic terrorist organization, Al-Shabaab. The group is believed to have links with Al-Qaeda, and it has been actively withhold international aid, just as the Guardian reported recently that the food aid donated from Red Cross was banned by Al-Shabaab. Al Shabaab  being listed as Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2008 has claimed responsibility for bombings that killed over 70 people in Uganda when they were making their way to watch the 2010 World Cup, according to the New York Times. The Islamic organization currently controls South Somalia, earlier they withdrew their influence in Mogadishu, allowing more aid to deliver to the victims successfully.What are the main reasons for the group banning all foreign aid? Has food become a weapon in terrorizing the Somalis? Or do they have a private political agenda to pursue, such as jihad?

This is an excerpt from Josh Rushing reported from Somalia in the documentary:

…in the south of the rural country, Al-Shabab fighters remain controlled. The group which is terror-listed by the US government as links with Al-Qaeda, has banned many western aids organizations from working within the territory.  Some Al-Shabaab spokesman even denied there is famine there.

At the moment there is only SAACID, a local charity could be able to deliver food to the people, however as the representative said the rules set by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) made them difficult to expand the operations across the capital. Donald Steinberg, deputy administrator of USAID, told International Business Times:

“We are committed to saving lives in Somalia and we are already working in any area not controlled by al-Shabaab. Unfortunately, about 60 percent of people affected are in al-Shabaab territories. We’ve instructed UNICEF and [World Food Program] that they can use our assistance in any part not under al-Shabaab control.”

 

Problems with early warnings?

With prolonged droughts, fallen food supply and increase in food price, thousands of hungry Somalis are waiting for food and some say they are waiting to die in the documentary. The situation has not been better since May 2010, when US-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSN) announced a warning of low rainfall in East Sub-Sahara region.It forecasted the drought crisis as early as August 2010, a weather condition linked to the La Niña phenomenon.

If an early warning were issued in advance, there will be more time to take preventive actions, particularly in the states like Somalia with lower efficiency within its government. Once the famine crisis was officially declared, possible international donors will send aids but the amount would depend on the perceived risk and scale of the crisis. An Oxfam researcher has mentioned that whether media has been reporting the crisis extensively as a factor in influencing the amount of aid received, he argued that the more exposure on media, the more attention will be obtained, implying the event did deserve more aids. Given the example of Japanese Tsunami last March, most global media has carried out live reporting and follow-up coverage on its damages to the community and the nuclear effect. Here’s a brief timeline on the warning system:

Early warning signs in May 2010: FEWSNET alert of poor rainfall and worsening food security
February 2011: Further warnings: FEWSNET issues alert that poor rains are forecast for March to May
30 May: Kenyan government declares the drought a national disaster
July 2011: UN declares famine in 2 regions of South Central Somalia

Having the roots of imperialism, Somalia was colonized by Britain and Italy in the early 1960s, it was expected to have industrialized infrastructure and economy after the foreign occupation.Oxfam researcher has confirmed political factors were the biggest hindrance in delivering international aid in this humanitarian crisis. The UN Refugee Agency said in a statement: “The collapse of the state… led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today, translating into unacceptable suffering of innocent civilians who see their basic human rights violated every day,”

The United Nations uses a five-step scale to assess a country’s food security—or the ability of its people to access sufficient food to meet their needs and ensure active, healthy lives. The fifth stage is “famine/humanitarian catastrophe.” It’s declared when malnutrition rates climb higher than 30 percent, when more than two people out of 10,000 die each day, and when food is limited to less than 2,100 calories a day per person.

As Oxfam puts it, famine is the “triple failure” of (1) food production, (2) people’s ability to access food and, finally and most crucially (3) in the political response by governments and international donors. Following work and improvement has to be done:

  • Production solutions:
    We must accelerate investment in African food production. There are regions in Africa we know have always faced chronic food shortages, where even small blips in harvests can have terrible consequences. We need more support for small-holder farmers and pastoralists (e.g. hardier crops, cheaper inputs, disaster risk management).
  • Access solutions: We must alleviate rural African poverty. More aid and budgetary investment into physical infrastructure (roads, communications etc) and allowing public intervention to correct market failures until markets are stronger (e.g. grain reserves to stop price volatility).
  • Response solutions: We need to move away from discretionary assistance to guaranteed social protection e.g. such as social assistance to the poor households to access food throughout the year and insurances, so that support can be triggered automatically in times of crisis. In some contexts cash transfers can be more appropriate than food aid, where availability of food is not a problem.

Former US President John F. Kennedy said few weeks before he was elected: “Food is strength, and food is peace, and food is freedom, and food is a helping hand to people around the world whose good will and friendship we want.”  Where is peace? Where is freedom? Where is global friendship?

BBC: Somalia famine: UN warns of 750,000 deaths

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